This is what really determines what type of music you like

Music isn’t just music, it’s culture and identity. Right around the onset of those pesky teenage years is when adolescents usually start to take note of the bands, singers, or rappers that resonate with them. But, one’s musical tastes usually stretch far beyond just music, the songs we enjoy often influence our style, choice of friends, and world view.

Why, though, do people gravitate toward specific musical acts? The obvious answer to that question would be the music itself. Somewhat surprisingly, however, a new international study has concluded that musicians’ personalities are just as influential as the tunes they play when it comes to peoples’ musical preferences. 

Researchers from Columbia Business School, Bar-Ilan University in Israel, Stony Brook University, and Helmut-Schmidt-University in Hamburg, Germany collaborated on this project.

An enormous dataset was analyzed that included the public personas of various well-known musicians, singers, and bands, as well as typical personality traits among each artist’s fans. It was discovered that people usually like and support musicians who have public personalities that are very similar to their own. The study’s authors have named this phenomenon the “self-congruity effect of music.” 

In all, information on over 80,000 people was used for this research. As far as musical acts and artists, “persona ratings” for 50 of the most famous musicians in the Western world were formulated. Participants’ reactions to songs and lyrics were included as well. 

Analyzed musicians ranged from musical legends at this point like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Elton John, to more contemporary acts like Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, and Coldplay. 

“The findings can pave the way for new approaches for record companies or music management to target and build audiences,” says Dr. Sandra Matz, Assistant Professor at Columbia Business School, in a university release. 

In summation, the research team concluded that personality similarities between an individual and a musician’s public persona accurately predicted musical preference, in the same way, a person’s age, gender, or the actual music itself would. So, while it’s fairly easy to deduce that an older individual who lived through the 1960s is probably a fan of The Beatles, these findings suggest that personality compatibility is just as influential.

“The findings can be applied to situations involving mental health. For example, in times of stress and uncertainty, listeners can seek music of artists with similar personalities to themselves and feel understood and a sense of connectedness,” comments study co-author Dr. H. Andrew Schwartz, Assistant Professor at Stony Brook University.

Now, as mentioned a few times before, we’re talking about musicians’ public personas here, not their actual demeanors behind closed doors. 

“In today’s world, where social divisions are increasing, our studies are showing us how music can be a common denominator to bring people together,” concludes study co-author Dr. David Greenberg, a Zuckerman Scholar at Bar-Ilan University, and an honorary research associate at Cambridge University in England.

This study represents a significant step forward regarding modern science’s understanding of music and musical taste. Simply put, music isn’t solely about music; our musical preferences are influenced to a great degree by both psychological and social factors. When someone decides they are a big fan of punk rock or hip hop, that person is effectively joining a huge cultural subgroup that comes along with its own fashion trends, ideology, and way of seeing the world.

The study’s authors say these findings also harken back to the evolutionary beginnings of music among people. Many historians believe music first emerged among early human tribes as a way to quickly convey a tribe’s characteristics to others and make a distinction regarding friends and foes. Fast forward to modern times, and this phenomenon still occurs all the time. People often initiate conversations and even friendships with strangers based on nothing more than a band’s t-shirt or another piece of merchandise.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.